Mobile field force automation companies have often chosen to tinker with bits and pieces of the field force system—people, assets, inventory, back office, supply chain, vehicle location, scheduling, dispatch—rather than fix the system on the whole.
Mobile field solutions today curiously resemble the islands of automation that fragmented the CAD/CAM/CIM manufacturing world of 15 years ago. While some field force solutions, for example, have focused on back-office (accounting, billing, etc.) and CRM extensions that include central schedule management (such as customer call handling, algorithms
for dispatch and optimal routing of field technicians), others are devoted to global positioning systems (GPS) or Ku-band satellite fleet tracking, RFID asset tracking, cell phones, two-way push-to-talk radios or wireless short messaging.
Users are commonly flummoxed. “We’ve struggled with what is going on [in the field] in terms of continuity and uniformity in our paperwork and in making timely decisions,” explains Bob Williams, president of Tropical Heating
and Air Conditioning, a small Mississauga, Ontario, mobile HVAC repair company in the throes of automating many of its workflows. “In the past, there was a lot of frustration in following technicians around and getting them [and their workflows] standardized.”
Williams says he has been able to straighten out many of his field force headaches with MobilioLink, a field service mobile workorder, scheduling, dispatch and billing system utilizing Web technology and thick clients—applications installed on a variety of handheld mobile devices that technicians carry, including laptops and PDAs. Typically, work orders are synchronized and updated to the Web every five minutes, and manual scheduling and paperwork processes are now electronic.
The transition hasn’t been easy, though. “It took months to get our manual work order and pricing information together and make the field force apps work with our back-office system,” Williams acknowledges. “The Mobilio people really worked to make it work.”
Williams isn’t alone. Frequently, users experience downtime and integration challenges when trying to deploy wireless field force solutions that include scheduling and work order management. Service offerings are often fragmented, especially in small to midsize markets. “The key issue still is integration of GPS platforms into applications software [for scheduling, dispatch and back office] and really leveraging the solutions,”
says David Krebs, a director of mobile and wireless at Venture Development Corporation, a market research and development company. Penetration of mobile field force solutions is still in the single-digit range, Krebs says, leaving markets for improvement wide open.
For example, vendors offering enterprise dispatch solutions generally do not provide integral automatic vehicle location (AVL) services to keep real-time tabs on technicians in the field. So dispatch can happen, but companies offering solutions cannot provide the end-to-end control and monitoring of technician activities that enterprises may need. There are exceptions (see sidebar). WebTech Wireless in Burnaby, B.C., for example, offers an AVL platform onto which mobile enterprise dispatch and scheduling apps can be built. Most commonly, though, AVL specialists do AVL only. Separately, they may contract with integrators or client IT staff to provide broader field force solutions that fill in the gaps in functionality.
Mobile Devices Come of Age
Today there is an almost universal acceptance that broadband cellular networks and Java-enabled phones, Pocket PCs, RIM BlackBerry phones and palmOne Treos are catching up in power and practicality to enterprise field force software. This means a technician can do more with less, and much less expensively, carrying around a handheld device rather than a $2,000 to $4,000 ruggedized laptop. Furthermore, per-unit mobile solutions can be as low as $120 per month per user, according to executives at Mobilio, though that excludes digital data airtime fees and other tie-in services.
“Typically, what we’ve built in the past is all the back-office applications, such as accounting and billing,” says Craig Erickson, president of Mobilio. “But the reality is that the revenues are coming from what’s been done in the field.” Real-time scheduling and work order automation are becoming the industry focal point, he explains.
Simon Jacobs, a director of product management at MDSI, a
leading producer of field force scheduling and dispatch software, says that two major factors are driving mobile dispatch. “Probably the biggest event was the blackout in the East in 2003, caused by poor maintenance in a high-voltage line in Ohio,” he recalls. “It contributed to a push toward preventative and proactive maintenance, especially among utilities and telecoms. In addition, since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, security has become a big concern, even among traditional maintenance companies. “There’s tremendous market pressure in the U.S. and spilling over into Europe to make sure field force systems are password-compliant, can measure up to auditing and control mechanisms in place and can fulfill regulatory maintenance requirements.”
Jacobs also insists that cheaper mobile technology can “drive the cost out of the [field force] business” while boosting labor productivity. In plainer terms, this means fewer technicians equipped with mobile tools are expected to answer more calls and complete more jobs each day with first-time fixes. Companies often measure productivity by the numbers of satisfied customers who don’t call back.
As such, software vendors are touting sophisticated algorithms to optimize service dispatch and ensure that fewer snafus take place. ServicePower, a field force optimizing and scheduling “granddad” in Annapolis, Md., has been in business for a decade. “We look at 34 different factors that influence whether [an organization]
has a good dispatch schedule or not,” explains Ian MacKinnon, ServicePower’s president and CEO. “The algorithm is a bit like HAL 9000, only benign.”
Factors such as individual technician skill sets, the complexity of the job, the geographic area covered and the location of spare parts are all part of the AI-driven scheduling algorithm. Moreover, the company is leveraging real-time wireless data to offer instant updates to field personnel. For example, ServicePower customers such as GE, Avaya and Benco Dental use PDAs, smartphones, Nextel phones and Panasonic Toughbooks to keep technicians in the loop. “The capability of the phones has improved tremendously in the last couple of years,” McKinnon says. “We’re even bringing dispatch messaging to straight-forward cell phones.” Field service technician productivity has soared by as much as 40 percent, he says. “That’s measured in jobs per day and minutes of working time as opposed to travel time.”
Mobile scheduling optimization is pricey among the large enterprise vendors, however. ServicePower clients can spend around $1,500 per technician for a full software license, plus add-on service and maintenance fees. “The per-seat price remains about the same, but the capabilities go up,” says McKinnon, likening the company’s value proposition to semiconductors.
Rise of Real-Time
Many field force organizations still rely on synced store-and-forward technology, a process for distributing appointments and orders that generally employs a hard connection between devices or scheduled wireless syncing. But wireless real-time lets dispatchers (or
dispatch algorithms) schedule and move around jobs in mid-stream, instantly communicating changes. Many service groups prefer real-time data updates because it enables “drip-feed scheduling that gives a technician the first two calls of the day,” says Dr. Moshe BenBassat, CEO and chairman of Click Software, a leading schedule/dispatch optimization company in Burlington, Mass. “As he finishes the job, the technician is fed new jobs, and that makes scheduling more flexible and drives productivity higher,” says BenBassat.
Click Software has now extended its traditional enterprise dispatch software to mobility environments. A new product, Click Mobile, engages on-the-go field forces by using IBM middleware for connectivity. Configurability and scalability are critical to the company’s very large customers, among them Telstra of Australia (8,000 technicians), Caterpillar and Bosch (see sidebar), which integrate scheduling and dispatch, including street-level routing information with call center operations. BenBassat adds that Click Software’s optimization algorithms can reduce the ratio of dispatchers to technicians by 30 percent and increase the numbers of daily jobs completed by 20 to 25 percent. Field service organizations, however, require a change in management strategy to prepare dispatchers and field personnel for the adjustment automation brings, he says. In some instances, dispatchers lose their jobs and technicians lose their self-scheduling autonomy. Click Software tries to prepare enterprises for these changes by offering on-site universities and training sessions to help ease the adjustment.
Mobile Frameworks and Independent Franchises
Scott Hiraoka, president of Irvine, Calif.–based FieldCentrix, an enterprise-level field force scheduling software company, says many organizations are just beginning to adapt to mobility as a commodity concept. The push is toward high-quality service area networks, says Hiraoka. FieldCentrix, which once built and certified its own custom mobile solutions, soon will rely on a separate breed of mobile frameworks, companies that provide quality horizontal infrastructure services to vertical businesses. The services include mobile application frameworks, enterprise data (CRM, ERP) integration, mobile network management, cross-device certification and cross wireless carrier connectivity. Com-
panies such as Sendia, Dexterra and Good Technology now also play in this space.
Despite the push toward mobility, many large scheduling software companies still insist that strict enterprise-centric management is critical to field service success. Large service organizations have two big opportunities to improve their service, first by optimizing their field forces with mobile tools that integrate the critical aspects of the business end-to-end and second by offering similar ASP-like Web and wireless services to hundreds of independent service franchises
acting on their behalf. “This is the big opportunity for global tierone companies automating their
dealer networks,” Hiraoka says. Independent franchises perform field service in areas where the main organization field force doesn’t operate. Therefore, using an ASP model and mobile dispatch tools, large organizations can boost scheduling coordination and efficiencies by catering to their independents.
With spotty automation and mobile unit pricing still prohibitive for many smaller field organizations, however, close to 95 percent of American field forces remain tied to manual paper methods. “These guys will change when the costs are right to them and they see the competition starting to use it,” says Mobilio’s Erickson. On the upside, Mobilio reports that the number of users has quadrupled over the last year. “Service managers can see the savings knowing where their guys are in the field,” Erickson says. “All it takes is one lost work order [to realize] the benefits [of mobile dispatch] are obvious.” •